We're Live Bangla Sunday, June 26, 2022

It hurts to be intolerant

India's Engagement With The World Is Now Coloured By What It Is Doing Internally

Illustration: Binay Sinha

On August 16, 2019, the United Nations’ website carried a news item headlined: “UN Security Council discusses Kashmir, China urges India and Pakistan to ease tensions”. The subheading read: “The Security Council considered the volatile situation surrounding Kashmir on Friday, addressing the issue in a meeting focused solely on the dispute, within the UN body dedicated to resolving matters of international peace and security, for the first time since 1965”.

Six days later, the UN site carried a report headlined: “Kashmir communications shutdown a ‘collective punishment’ that must be reversed, say UN experts”. This referred to the internet ban India enforced, making Kashmiri children the only ones in the world to have been denied online education throughout the pandemic.

In December, a resolution was tabled in the United States House of Representatives. House Resolution 745 was headlined: “Urging the Republic of India to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible and preserve religious freedom for all residents”. India’s response was to demand that the Congresswoman who tabled the motion be removed from a group meeting with S Jaishankar. This was rejected by both Republicans and Democrats and earned admonitions from Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, among others. The motion had 68 co-sponsors, from both parties and six days after the Joe Biden administration took over and Donald Trump was out, India lifted the net blockade.

The following month, January 2020, saw a resolution tabled in the European parliament against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). It used harsh language, like: “The Government of India has reinforced its nationalistic orientation, discriminating against, harassing and prosecuting national and religious minorities and silencing any opposition, human rights groups, human rights defenders, and journalists critical of the government”. The Europeans feared that the CAA-NRC (National Register of Citizens) pincer was “set to create the largest statelessness crisis in the world and cause immense human suffering”.

The resolution condemned India’s actions against its own people, notably Muslim protestors who were being tortured and killed. It also called for the UN Resolutions on Kashmir (ie the plebiscite) to be implemented.

Mr Jaishankar flew to Brussels to speak to the parliamentarians, though what agreement he arrived at with them was not revealed. The CAA was put on hold and has still not been implemented and there is no sign of the NRC that Amit Shah promised in Parliament was coming.

A few months later in April 2020, the bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) put out its annual report. It went through recent events in India and then recommended to the US State department and president Trump that India be designated as a “country of particular concern for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act.” It recommended targeted sanctions against Indian officials and agencies by freezing assets and barring entry into the US (readers may remember of a similar ban on Mr Modi after 2002).

India responded by dismissing the findings. In 2021, the USCIRF reported that “religious freedom conditions in India continued their negative trajectory” and again recommended that India be designated as a country of concern and sanctioned. This time there was no response from India.

In the 2022 report, the USCIRF for the third year running called for sanctions and said religious freedom conditions in India had “significantly worsened’. In April 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was “monitoring some recent concerning developments in India including a rise in human rights abuses”. Mr Jaishankar’s response was to say: “People are entitled to have views”. This month, releasing the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Mr Blinken said “in India we’ve seen rising attacks on people, places of worship”. The Ministry of External Affairs responded by putting out a statement in the name of its spokesman Arindam Bagchi. He said the US was practising “vote bank politics’ (he didn’t explain how) and that India had “regularly highlighted issues of concern” in the US including on hate crimes and gun violence.

India’s headlong and panicky retreat after pressure from Muslim nations this month came 10 days after the words were uttered by its spokeswoman and five days after its spokesman had tweeted a repeat of those words. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Ministry of External Affairs did not appear to be aware of what it had done and what the Arab reaction would be. On a Sunday, the BJP all within a few hours first distanced itself from the words, then suspended and expelled the two individuals and then got Nupur Sharma to withdraw her statement. Though India’s ambassadors were summoned and dressed down, neither Mr Jaishankar nor Mr Modi spoke.

A few things have become clear. First, that the Indian government’s engagement with the world has become coloured by what India is doing internally to its minorities. Second, that this is essentially negative. There is no advantage we have gained abroad through pushing Hindutva at home. Third, that because Hindutva will continue at home, we must expect more attention of the sort listed above. And fourth, that there is no real response we have to criticism except to look away and hope it doesn’t escalate. That works sometimes, but other times, such as with the CAA and with the recent retreat, it doesn’t. India is being compelled to do things through external pressure.

The BJP's elections manifestos of 2014 and 2019 say that India was “Vishwaguru” (the world’s teacher) and entitled to a place on the Security Council. The manifestos offer no pathway for how we would get there, a reform requiring the assent of not just the general assembly but all five existing members. There is no reference to Hindutva and what it would do to minorities in the foreign policy document and of course the Ministry of External Affairs does not acknowledge Hindutva either. It continues the fiction of diplomats representing a secular and pluralist India.

Happily, for the BJP, there is no questioning internally of what we have done to ourselves and to what end. The reality is that India has been considerably diminished abroad by its internal actions. And it will continue to face pressure to correct its misbehaviour from nations who are alarmed by events in the “world’s largest democracy”.


The writer is chair of Amnesty International India